Staying On Track

Was it only a couple of months ago that you promised yourself you’d get up every morning, slip those sweats on and head to the gym, a Stairmaster ready and waiting to go?

Psychologists said 115 million Americans made health resolutions on January 1, 2002 – promising themselves to quit smoking, eat better, lose weight, or start a serious exercise program. But within 2 months only about 63% are still keeping their number one New Year’s resolution. By May, for most people, the Stairmaster’s got cobwebs on it, and those sweats haven’t seen the light of day in weeks. Defeat breeds defeat and you give up any further attempt to change.

So if you started an exercise program and you find yourself hitting the proverbial wall right about now, is there anything you can do to get yourself back into the routine

You’ll only succeed if you really want to make a change, says Carl Foster, a professor in the department of exercise and sport science at the University of Wisconsin at Lacrosse. “And unfortunately, those who tend to drop out of exercise programs are usually the ones who need it most – the overweight, the smoker, people with lower education, or those in lower socio-economic groups. And for those who don’t have spousal support for this kind of behavioral change, the statistics are even worse.”

Try, try again

Foster says smoking cessation programs have been teaching fitness trainers to dust off an old adage: If at first you don’t succeed try, try again.

“We’re getting some data from smoking cessation programs that shows if people really, really want to do something they can succeed,” he says. “What they have to do is start over and do it again if they fail. And they have to do restart, again and again until the habit catches. It can take two times; it can take twenty times. But people really have to think the habit change is important in order for the change to stick.”

If losing weight’s your goal, nothing’s better than an exercise program. First, there’s the obvious — increased caloric expenditure. Doing an aerobic exercise, one that makes you breathe harder and makes your heart beat 50% faster for 30 minutes each day, burns up to 250 calories. Increase that to 75% faster for 30 minutes and you burn 350 calories.

There’s also an added benefit. When you finish exercising, you get an elevated metabolic rate. The longer you exercise, the longer the increased metabolic rate.

And if all that isn’t good enough, exercise is a mild appetite suppressant!

Right time, right exercise

Time is the biggest barrier to a successful long-term exercise program, Foster says. “Life has a certain rhythm to it and when you start a program, that rhythm gets changed. Say you decide to exercise an hour a week. You have to drive to the gym. Then you have to park. Then you have to change and do your program. Then you have to shower. Before you know it you’re late coming back from lunch and the boss wants to know why. When a person’s ordinary life gets unnecessarily complicated, people back away. They say to themselves: ‘You’d better give it up before the boss or the spouse complains.'”

So what do you do if time’s a problem?

Create an exercise program that works for your lifestyle, Foster advises. “Don’t feel like you have to exercise in the morning, though statistics are better for morning exercisers. Design an exercise program that fits your lifestyle, including what time of day is best for you.”

And if you don’t like jogging, don’t jog. “You can swim, or you can walk,” Foster says. “The data out there suggest, that for 70% of middle-aged men, and 90% of middle-aged women, walking at a quick pace is just as good as more strenuous exercise for a younger person. If you can walk at a pace where you can just barely carry on a conversation, that’s probably real good. And decide in advance if you’re a solo exerciser or a group exerciser. You need to play to your strengths.”

“Reward behavior, not results,” Foster says. “If you miss a day or so of exercise, it’s no big deal.” You need to reward yourself when you achieve one of your exercise goals. “Say you can put 17 Xs on you calendar in a month, one for every day you went to the gym and did your routine. If that’s your goal, when you achieve that, go out and buy yourself a new CD or some piece of clothing you’ve been fancying.”

And if you don’t get the 17 Xs?

“Donate some money to a political party you do like,” Foster suggests. “Not a lot of money — just enough to make you wince. What you need to give yourself is some negative feedback.”

Surgeon General’s Report on Physical Activity and Health